With summer here, the whirligig of time brings in “The Taming of the Shrew” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, and it proves a blissfully madcap occasion. This rip-roaring take on William Shakespeare’s ever-popular romantic comedy opens the 40th anniversary season at this incomparable outdoor venue with marvelous forward momentum.
Shrewdly trimming text without losing clarity or hilarity, director Ellen Geer achieves a gratifyingly straightforward triumph, avoiding either a deconstruction or a politically corrected revision. By staging the Bard’s account of the titular virago and the fortune hunter who withstands her through a post-millennial viewfinder, Geer honors the play’s ribald essence and rambunctious spirit with wholly accessible glee.
Thus the framing device depicts drunken Christopher Sly (Gerald C. Rivers, a hoot) as a street person, surrounded by various urban archetypes who maintain the headlong velocity usually associated with “SCTV” or “Modern Family,” all while morphing into citizens of 16th-century Padua.
With costumer Val Miller having a bipolar field day, the fearless players earn guffaws even in traditionally less-than-uproarious places and embrace some merry passion at every turn.
Starting with the inspired lead turns by Willow Geer and Aaron Hendry, who inhabit waspish Katharina and ruthless Petruchio with dexterous word-pointing, un-hackneyed inflections and amazing physical abandon. From the moment Hendry’s wonderfully expressive face lights up after first hearing his quarry’s off-stage caterwauls, it’s clear that this Petruchio is all too ready to tangle.
Geer, whose development from house ingénue to leading lady reaches its zenith here, is magnificent as Kate, from epically roaring entrance to beautifully plainspoken apotheosis.
Indeed, this pairing suggests two sides of a single brawling persona, across virtually the entire range of comic technique. You’d almost have to go back to Meryl Streep and the late, great Raul Julia in Central Park in 1978 to find so fully satisfying a double act.
Ditto for the contrasting second couple, John Maidman’s boyishly loopy Lucentio and Christine Breihan’s coyly cagey Bianca. As her other suitors, Bill Gunther is a tickling coot of a Gremio, Christopher W. Jones a slyly acerbic Hortensio. Franc Ross is a droll treat as beleaguered Baptista, and so goes the roster, with Melora Marshall’s airborne, rapid-fire Grumio and Jeff Wiesen’s superbly sardonic Tranio tied for most entitled scene-stealer in a troupe of heavenly hambones.
There’s even delicious sauciness to the musical accompaniment, whether authentic company madrigals or burlesque-worthy sound effects provided by Liz Eldridge, Frank Weidner and other musicians overhead.
It’s all aptly fitted and naturally performed, and the Theatricum box office should prepare for the phone ringing off the hook once word-of-mouth gets out about this riotous, delightfully fun-filled romp.
“The Taming of the Shrew,” Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Plays in repertory; see website for schedule. Ends Sept. 29. $25-$35. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
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